Urbanisation is on the rise in Sri Lanka at a rapid rate. According to a new survey conducted by the National Physical Planning Department, urbanisation has increased to 45% in 2022 from 18.5% in 2012 which shows a rapid growth in the past decade with more rural dwellers migrating to cities for better standards of living, employment, better health and education facilities and other amenities.
Details of the survey, as reported in the media, states that the main indicators of rapid urbanisation are population density, number of houses, supermarkets and clothing and readymade garment shops located within a 10 km distance, public schools and shops and the number of homes and apartments given on rent.
These findings are not surprising and are a part of a global trend toward urbanisation. According to the United Nations Population Division (UNPD), today more than half of the global population lives in urban areas, while the urban share worldwide is rising from around one-third in 1950 to around two thirds in 2050. Of the 2.5 billion new urban dwellers anticipated by 2050, 90% will live in Africa and Asia.
The urbanisation explosion began in the Western nations starting with the Industrial Revolution, the period of major mechanisation and innovation that began in the United Kingdom in the mid-18th century and early 19th century and later spread throughout much of the world. Countries such as Sri Lanka were slow to join the race to migrate to urban areas for better lives with much of the move to cities picking up over the past two to three to four decades with suburbs of Colombo evolving into bigger cities and making it affordable to buy land and settle in these areas.
But with urbanisation comes problems and we are already seeing the results of unplanned development that is taking place. Flooding is one of the main problems associated with large populations moving into areas which were once vast expanses of wetlands, paddy fields, and swamps now filled up to provide for housing and other needs of the city dwellers. Disposal of garbage is another major issue in urban areas with most local authorities ill-equipped to manage the large amount of garbage that is collected from homes, offices, restaurants, schools, etc., with no proper plans at a national level to recycle waste and designate areas to dump garbage. Along with urbanisation has also come the rise of illnesses such as dengue fever which is now rampant in Colombo and its suburbs.
All this at a time when the world as a whole is grappling with a rise in global temperatures due to the high emission of greenhouse gases and while a small country like Sri Lanka may not be able to do much on its own to mitigate this situation, it is moving towards “rapid development” and forgetting the high cost all Sri Lankans will have to pay by destroying the country’s natural resources.
Colombo is fast becoming a concrete jungle with high rise structures coming up all over with serious questions about the procedures adapted for issuing clearance for putting up such buildings. Other cities too are facing similar problems.
So how does a small country like Sri Lanka deal with rapid urbanisation? The country needs to follow a sustainable and planned urbanisation plan so that the existing infrastructure is expanded for water and sanitation, energy, transportation, etc. while preserving the natural assets within cities and surrounding areas.
It means increasing tree cover, preserving wetlands, tightening laws on the use of plastic and polythene, adapting eco-friendly systems for garbage disposal so that urbanisation takes place in a sustainable manner and not at the unplanned, unauthorised and destructive pace at which it is happening today.